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Be a "Jerk" in the Kitchen

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Virginia Burke, author of "Eat Caribbean", and her jerk chicken.

“The first rule of “jerk” is that it is not a seasoning but rather a method of cooking.  The second rule is that jerk seasoning is an integral part of “jerk” cooking.  And finally, “jerk”, when executed properly, is never too hot.”  These were the words of Virginia Burke within the first few moments of meeting her at Hotel Mockingbird Hill, located in Portland Parish, Jamaica – the birthplace of “jerk”. 

We had travelled many miles to meet this woman who authored the cookbook Eat Caribbean, the most comprehensive to date on the art of Caribbean cookery.  Virginia, a native of Jamaica and former pal of Bob Marley, was going to teach us a few things about “jerk”. 

Virginia Burke with Chef Melvin Laidlaw of Mille Fleurs at Hotel Mockingbird Hill.

While many of us in North America know jerk as a sauce or spicy rub for chicken and pork, the history and importance of this cooking technique is often overlooked.  To truly appreciate “jerk”, an understanding of the people and island history helps.

The Spanish and Portuguese were the first settlers of Jamaica and brought with them the slave trade.  As early as 1512, African slaves who escaped from Spanish and Portuguese owners had joined the local indigenous peoples or formed their own communities.  By 1655, runaway slaves had formed their own communities in inland Jamaica, and by the eighteenth century, they began fighting for independent recognition.  These runaway slaves that had banded together and subsisted independently were called Maroons.

In nearby Charlestown, we visited a working museum to learn about the Maroons and their culture.  The Maroons were not a group you wanted to upset.  They were considered the first to develop guerilla warfare according to the museum curator - a man simply referred to as “the colonel”.  He told us horrifying stories of how the Maroons would sit in the jungle disguised as palm trees.  As the British invaders rode by on their horses towards base camp, one of the “palm trees” would, with one quick swipe, decapitate the rider with a machete.  When the horses arrived at base camp, they would still have the torso of their rider, just not the head.

Carvings at Charlestown, a "living museum" of the life of the Maroons.

What does this have to do with jerk?  Well, the terrain the Maroons travelled was very mountainous and these defensive armies would spend days in the bush to protect their settlements.  Meat for protein was needed to keep up their strength and their technique for “jerk” was the solution to prepare, cure, and transport food without exposing their position. 

The traditional method for “jerk” involved the digging of a hole in the ground in which they constructed a grid of still green bamboo sticks just above a shallow pit of smoldering ashes of allspice wood or “pimenta wood".  Meat would be rubbed with spices and placed onto the grid.  They would then cover the meat with leaves from allspice or pimento trees, trapping it and allowing the smoke to stay in the meat and from escaping into the air.  This was important as the meat could be left to cook without giving off any indication as to where the Maroons might be hiding.

This 17-year old has a bright chef's future ahead of him.

At Charlestown, we met a 17 year old local boy who prepared jerk pork for us using the traditional method.  The pork had been slow-smoked for several hours after being rubbed in his proprietary blend of spices.  One bite and we were speechless.  Where was the heat?  The burn?  The watering eyes?  All myth.  The true art of jerk, as originally explained by Virginia was less about the heat and more about the flavour.  While jerk seasoning was important, it was only part of the equation.

Jerk seasoning principally relies upon two items: allspice which in Jamaica they refer to as "pimento" and Scotch bonnet peppers – considered to be one of the hottest peppers on the Scoville scale, a measurement of “heat” a chili pepper has by the amount of capsaicin it contains.  In jerk cooking, the object of the game is not to add as many Scotch Bonnet you can find – rather, to understand the meat, the method for smoking, and your audience.  Back at Mockingbird Hill, Virginia walked us through the basics of modern-day jerk cookery with her recipe for Jerk Seasoning (Click Here for the Recipe)

Our Ingredients for making Virginia's famous Jerk Seasoning for Shrimp and Chicken.

The ingredients were added to a small food processor which she blended into a paste. This was then used to coat some chicken and left to marinade.  On a barbecue filled with pimento wood briquettes, she placed the chicken and added some pimento leaves underneath.  “You can use other leaves and wood but nothing beats pimento wood to get the true flavour of jerk” commented Virginia.  “…but in other parts of the world I have seen apple wood used and it does add a unique flavour.  The secret is in the smoke and the seasoning”.  While the chicken slow cooked, Virginia added some shrimps to a skewer and marinated them again in the jerk seasoning.  She placed them on the grill as the smoke billowed from our more modern barbecue – the kind one would use while camping or (god forbid) at a tail-gate party.

While the chicken and shrimp continued to cook, Virginia shared some additional Jamaican recipes to compliment our meal.  First, a mango fruit salsa to accompany our shrimp known as “Bite and Kiss” (Click Here for the Recipe).  Vidalia onions, red and green peppers, and mangoes were finely chopped and dressed.  To accompany it, she created a lovely Soured Cream which is a perfect heat-neutralizing side for the spicy jerk shrimps sizzling away on the barbecue.

As custom in Jamaica, we sat at a communal table to meet our lovingly prepared jerk feast.  Our chicken and shrimp were divine with the mango salsa and soured cream.  Traditional breads and a salad with banana vinaigrette were also served.  Some roasted breadfruit was a perfect starch.  A bottle of sparkling wine paired with the meal made for a perfect afternoon al fresco, Caribbean-style.  We chatted about Jamaica, local politics, the food, and of course, Bob Marley. 

“Basically I met Bob Marley on New Year's morning in 1973” stated Virginia as she shared how Bob dated her best friend Cindy, how she toured him around London and California in the early days, and did graphic design work for his newsletters.  “Once, he took me backstage and onstage at a Rolling Stones concert in New York which was a big thrill. I considered him a friend and it was a privilege to have been in the inner circle of such a star as he rose to fame. We sure miss his spirit, his humour and energy, but Bob lives on!”

We got back onto the topic of Jamaican cuisine and the quality one can expect when they visit.   This was when Virginia commented that “most visitors to the Caribbean miss the opportunity to experience true island cuisine.  Many of the resorts here have incorporated more continental dishes to accommodate the various tastes of international guests”.   What a shame we thought as we lapped up the last bits of the soured cream and shrimps.  The food was not too hot but flavourful.  You could taste the jerk seasoning but more importantly, it actually enhanced the flavours of the shrimp and chicken.  “That is the biggest misconception of jerk” exclaimed Virginia as she raised her arms in jovial protest.

The mango salsa and salads were easy to prepare and we instantly thought of how this very meal could be served on any patio back home during summer.  A couple of crisp bottles of Pinot Grigio paired with some shrimps, chicken, and salads – all using a bit of jerk seasoning and technique.  When we returned home, we cracked open Virginia’s book and took a stab at incorporating “jerk” into our daily dinner planning.  The summer months are fast approaching and we wanted to perfect our art of being “A Jerk in the Kitchen” before the first long weekend in cottage country.  Looking forward to trying bison burgers with jerk mayonnaise this weekend, we will keep you posted.

Want to See More?

Check out more images of our Day with Virginia Burke on our Facebook Fan Page by CLICKING HERE.


I love jerk!! Never too spicy for me! Great piece!
Post Reply By Martha in TORONTO on 3/10/2018 9:25:29 AM

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